McKee still leaving school masking policy to individual districts
PROVIDENCE – The Ocean State is asking all of its healthcare professionals to roll up their sleeves for the COVID-19 vaccine before October.
Gov. Dan McKee announced this new policy during his weekly standing media availability on Tuesday, sharing that the intent is meant to “make Rhode Island’s healthcare facilities even safer, and to make our vaccination numbers even stronger.”
“I want to thank Rhode Island healthcare workers for their heroic efforts through the pandemic,” McKee said, “and we want to ensure you’re safe and protected at work.”
All healthcare workers are expected to be fully immunized by Oct. 1 — or else continue wearing a surgical mask at all times while inside a medical facility. Healthcare workers who opt to not receive the vaccine will also be required to receive COVID-19 testing at least twice a week.
“This goes for both public and private facilities,” according to McKee.
Currently, the Ocean State is still leading much of the nation in its vaccination efforts. More than 658,000 Rhode Islanders are fully vaccinated — about 62.3 percent of the total population. When only looking at the number of adults fully vaccinated, that number jumps to 73.1 percent.
“We know that our best tool
to combat COVID and the Delta variant is vaccines,” McKee said. “Getting vaccinated is the number one thing we can do to keep ourselves and those around us healthy and out of the hospital. It’s the number one thing we can do to prevent COVID deaths.”
“If you haven’t already, it’s time to get vaccinated,” he added.
In addition to leading with vaccination rates, Rhode Island can also boast one of the lowest death and hospitalization rates in the country.
“We’re in a good spot, but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to do everything we can to make sure that the people of Rhode Island are safe,” McKee said.
In recent weeks, the governor has been touring the state and popping up at different clinics in an effort to help get eligible Rhode Islanders vaccinated. These efforts have been wildly successful, given that the state was able to meet its RI Gives Vax Challenge goal about two months ahead of schedule.
The program, which awarded another round of 10,000 grants to local nonprofits every time another 5,000 Rhode Islanders received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, helped provide hundreds of thousands of dollars to help community members in need.
Since the program’s launch in early July, more than 20,000 Rhode Islanders received their first dose of the vaccine.
On Tuesday, the governor shared that there are still 194,588 eligible Rhode Islanders who have yet to receive the vaccine, and in the weeks ahead, McKee and his staff are “going to be doing everything we can” to bring that number down even more.
“Rhode Island vaccination efforts are going strong, and we continue to be in the top five in the country for vaccinations, but we know that in order to stay ahead of the Delta variant, and keep Rhode Islanders out of the hospital, we must keep that going,” McKee said.
Some of those efforts will include connecting every school district across the state with a school-based or community-based vaccination clinic. Many of these have already been started, according to McKee, and parents can anticipate hearing from their child’s school with further details.
Following CDC guidelines, “the state is strongly recommending that districts create a policy that requires all students, faculty and staff to wear a mask indoors, in school settings, at the beginning of the school year.”
McKee pointed out that many students across the state, all those 11 years old and younger, do not yet meet age requirements for the vaccine.
“We have to use all tools available to us to keep them safe, and to prevent in-classroom learning disruption,” McKee said. “We don’t want kids to have to be quarantined because of an infection in the school. They need to be in the classroom, and we’re working with not only the Providence Public School system, but school districts around the state of Rhode Island.”
“They can’t afford to lose any more time,” he added.
Following McKee’s announcement, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, who has already announced her candidacy in the 2022 Gubernatorial race, released a statement saying McKee’s lack of a mandate was putting children in a dangerous situation.
“One of the most important roles of government is to protect people and leadership means making tough decisions. In failing to call for a mask mandate in our schools, Governor McKee is putting our kids and educators at risk,” said Gorbea. “The guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics are clear about the need to protect children from the highly contagious Delta strain of COVID-19. We all want our kids in schools and masking will help us keep them there safely.”
The governor stressed that although he is leaving the decision up to school districts, with case numbers and the Delta variant on the rise, mask wearing should be embraced as another line of defense.
The first line of defense for those who are eligible, according to Rhode Island Department of Health Director Nicole Alexander-Scott, should be the vaccine.
“The vaccines are extremely effective at keeping you out of the hospital, and keeping you alive,” Alexander-Scott said, heavily stressing that the Delta variant is much more aggressive than any of the other strains we have dealt with in the Ocean State.
While someone who had one of the earlier variants may have infected one or two additional people, this new variant gives one infected individual the potential to infect six or seven other people.
“It’s why we’ve seen more than a 200 percent increase in our case rate over the last few weeks,” Alexander- Scott said. “An important take away, though, is recognizing the strength of our high vaccination rates. Our hospitalization numbers have not risen as significantly as our case numbers — that’s what we expected. Our fatality numbers, thankfully, have remained essentially flat.”
Rhode Island is doing a great job at getting vaccinated, but there’s still more work to be done. And those who have been vaccinated should still consider the risk of new variants, which vaccinated individuals could still get and pass around to others. Testing is important for everyone, according to Alexander-Scott, and masks continue to help limit the spread.
“No one at this table is suggesting the state impose a mask mandate again, right now,” McKee said. “What we are saying is you and your family need to know the risk of the Delta variant, and then, if you are vaccinated, make the decision that’s best for you.”
“If you want to wear a mask in public, wear a mask in public,” he added.